Why has the Tea Party succeeded when so many other simplistic, authoritarian clowns failed to hold power, beaten by elections, establishment money, or Washington's Great Alligator Swamp? Far more coherent, rational third parties, left and right, have stuttered, crushed by special interest crowds who take no prisoners, nor advice from small-town yokels. What separates the Tea Party, today with enough strength to trump the GOP Congressional establishment and make a federal case out of ho-hum debt ceilings?
Did not the Goldwater flash fizzle after one election? Did not the '80's unchristian, moral minority flop in its own core terms -- outlawing neither abortion nor gay rights, nor plastering Ten Commandments plaques across a Christian homeland? Gingrich's '90's insurgency failed at policy and at elections, inducing his career-ending train wreck. Ralph Nader and Ron Paul candidacies garnered more publicity than power. Ditto larger, leftwing uprisings: a ferocious anti-Vietnam rebellion failed to end the war that spawned it (finally nixed years later by Congress). Remember the Howard Dean meteor, Ross Perot. the progressive Henry Wallace (1948) losing badly to racist Dixiecrats, with segregation resurfacing with Lester Maddox and George Wallace. Splashy movements, with charismatic leaders, not without money -- yet all short-lived.
It's thus a puzzle how higgledy-piggledy "Tea Parties" nationalize their impact, despite crude, contradictory ferocity towards the federal government, Medicare/Soc. Security, majority rule, elected officials, and a dark-skinned president. No doubt this ragtag brethren benefits from anti-regulation, reactionary Koch Brothers' billions. Yet money alone doesn't guarantee leverage, especially when undercut by error-prone loudmouths like the Palin or Michele Bachmann. Nonetheless, Tea Partiers make no bones about discrediting, insulting, even arming and seceding from an "untrue America" they cannot dominate. We've been here before, where intransigence meant Civil War, still a fine window into today's unholy alliance bridging states rights' fantasists, libertarians, the old property class, and born-again fundamentalists.
'Tea Party' Mentality Comes Early
In fact, some origins of the Tea Party set, plus intractable liberal-conservative schisms precede 1860, even revolutionary Founders, looking to pioneer mindsets from our nation's infancy. Long before (and after) the states "united," when were we truly "one nation" under the same god (read: the same values)? A quick survey unearths dramatic differences between divergent birthrights, especially comparing: 1) egalitarian values, like life and liberty, for the majority; 2) fervor for exploitation, materialism and class/wealth distinctions; 3) primacy of community vs. rogue individualism; and 4) lust for land conquest, squashing natives, and empire-building.
Ask any school kid where and why America was born. Answer: Massachusetts, with Thanksgiving feasts, hardscrabble winters, and exiled Brits seeking religious freedom and safety within tight New England settlements. What we inherit from Plymouth Rock drives our Declaration's mythic values: bold pioneers, small farmers and craftsmen committed to individual rights yet also deep-felt democratic communities elevating "one for all and all for one." Though not without excess (theocracy, burning witches) nor native massacres, recall what Puritans were not -- well-armed, ruthless conquerors seeking treasure, aligned with religious extremists who killed those refusing to convert. Above all, New England Puritans in fact and myth did not come to get rich, nor significantly as agents of a foreign power (except Protestantism). They even bought and paid for their "shining city on a hill" from helpful, non-demonized native populations. Significantly, no profit-hungry corporation started New England, and that has made all the difference.
Next up, and in bold contrast, the other, far more corporate colonial birth pang. Remember Chesapeake Bay settlements -- Jamestown and the Virginia Company? No splashy national holidays honor this first Royal Colony (1625) by which wealthy stock companies funded hardnosed risk-takers dying to get rich growing tobacco. Chesapeake doesn't serve our latter-day mythology, less about freedom of thought than freedom to plunder, to initiate a full-fledged, militarized, for-profit conquest. Most early Virginians coming by choice did not emigrate to nurture family, church, school or community culture, but to capitalize on cheap land and cheap labor to satisfy established market demand.
Following One's Bliss
As historian Jack P. Greene summarizes (in Pursuits of Happiness ), Chesapeake society was "extremely different" from New England settlements, "highly materialistic, infinitely more secular, competitive, exploitative, and very heavily devoted to commercial agricultural production for an export market." N.E. cultivated family and community kinship, civil institutions, schools and a far more egalitarian, level playing field. With "liberal" and traditional values, New England quickly became a religious and cultural melting pot, sharing assumptions, mutual defenses, and a sense of collective, consensual destiny.
Not so Chesapeake, whose aristocratic hierarchy demanded labor-intensive, large-scale farming, reliant first on indentured workers, then eventually African slaves. The result, per Greene, was a "sharply differentiated society in which a few of the people who survived the high mortality rate had become rich and the vast majority worked in harsh conditions as servants." Shared social institutions, like churches or schools, counted less in this rugged, free-market bonanza, thus Greene struggles "to conceive how any two settlements composed almost entirely of Englishmen could have been much more different."
If New England started as a middle-class, freedom-loving invasion, with a very tolerant Rhode Island, then Chesapeake introduced ruthless corporatism, a colonial outpost hoping to replicate the rigidly class-bound England to which rich winners dreamed of returning. To extrapolate Greene's findings beyond his scope, I argue this early dichotomy stamps later, even current political and geographic cultures. Draw a line from Maryland westward and bingo, the ominous North-South demarcation -- two increasingly separable states confirmed ultimately by the Civil War. Lurch westward and "New England" values insinuate the more liberal Midwest (Chicago and north), with southern Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri decidedly more "southern."
It's hardly a leap to project this commercial, hierarchical Chesapeake into the aristocratic, Southern, anti-federalist, cotton-and-tobacco realm that produced war. Nor would it be a stretch to extend this Southern plantation model into other later, large-scale farming, ranching and mining arenas, with wide-open red state conservatism enhanced today by small-town fundamentalists. Does not, finally, the West Coast revivify New England's coastal culture, sharing eastern, liberal values of toleration, education, social cohesiveness, and voting patterns? What better context for red vs. blue states?
American as Apple Pie
In short, America was for me divided from the start -- and the Tea Party, identifying itself with the anti-regulatory, business religion of the rightwing aristocracy, discloses part of an ancestral lineage (conscious or not). Chesapeake's anything-goes system, not Plymouth Rock, first and foremost envisioned America as the great empire keen to exploit minorities and seize property belonging to others, whether Mexico, Central America, Hawaii, the Philippines, or Iraq. As the "Chesapeake mentality" divided folks into rich owners and oppressed workers, so Tea Party types refudiate outsiders (black, Muslim, or foreign) who undermine their intact complacency. After all, it was Chesapeake, not the devout New England, asserting unchristian greed is good, exploitation for profit is good, and military belligerence against "hostiles" is good.
Many attribute the declining American Empire to internal scarring from divisive neo-liberalism -- with countless military invasions, Friedmanesque concentrations of super-wealth, and rabid intolerance towards non-whites, even when newcomers could well resuscitate our no-growth economy (as immigrants have for centuries). Though New Englanders also felt chosen by God, eventually using factory-industrialism to become as rich and exploitative as any large slaveholders, current dynamics emerge when appreciating our radically dissimilar birth pangs.